October 2, 2012
“Life is a probability statement.” – Jim Treloar, Ph.D.
Dr. Treloar was my statistics and research methods professor when I was working on my doctorate at Ball State University. His quote above has stuck with me my entire career. It summarizes the human condition in one, pithy sentence. We can’t predict events exactly, but we can say (sometimes with high confidence) when they are more or less likely to happen. For some of us, this is as good as it gets and that’s ok. Knowing things “just happen” is not a cause for alarm; it’s recognition of what is.
It’s a disquieting thought to those of who want, sometimes desperately, certainty and clear cause and effect relationships in life. Albert Einstein once argued, “God does not play dice with the universe”. Though this argument was with Werner Heisenberg’s famous Uncertainty Principal, many of us think like Einstein about life in general. We want to be the masters of our own domain, and not just in a “Seinfeldian” fashion. Probability scares some of us. Perhaps this fear is because it undermines our desire for a deterministic universe – one that reassures us that there is a reason why things happen.
I’m not writing about risk management in an effort to solve these philosophical issues. Rather, I want to bring to light how risk management affects all of us in the behavioral health community, and what we can do to mitigate that risk. I also want to set the context for this post. Risk management is ultimately about decreasing the probability that something bad will occur. Understanding that probability — not determinism — is at play, is critical to setting realistic expectations about what’s possible and what’s fantasy.
It seems oddly fitting that I’m discussing this topic at this time. I am approaching the fifth anniversary of the day the odds caught up with me. It is also the day my personal risk management strategies, such as they were, failed. On a beautiful, clear October afternoon, three others and I went for a bicycle ride that took us down a very steep hill here in Bloomington IN. Three of the riders in question, including my wife (hereafter referred to as she-who-must-be-obeyed) exhibited very good judgment about going down Boltinghouse Hill and one did not. I liked going downhill on my bike as fast as possible. On this particular day, my speed peaked at 48 mph. I then went off the road, causing my front wheel to dig into the dirt. The bike and I flipped. After one rotation with the bike, the bike and I hit the ground. I was ejected from the bike and came to rest in the middle of the road. This error in judgment cost me 10 broken ribs, a collapsed lung, a dislocated shoulder, multiple lacerations and, thankfully, a cracked helmet that absorbed the cranial impact that would surely have killed me without one. I spent 12 days in the hospital. I had two chest tubes inserted and took a lot of pain medication.
I knew I was in trouble when no one from the hospital UM department even asked whether I could be discharged. After discharge, I went through narcotics withdrawal. Through this experience, I gained new respect and insight into the drug withdrawal experience. I lived to ride again, but my bike did not. To see pictures, visit Denny’s Google Plus Page.
Was this event destined to occur or was it “bad luck”? Well, it wasn’t destined and I don’t believe in “luck”, but it’s probability definitely increased with the speed that I chose to go while descending the hill. Like most of us, I believed I would “beat the odds” and continued down this treacherous path. Could this risk have been mitigated so the probability of being injured was zero? Yes…if I never rode my bike, the chances that this accident would have occurred would have been zero. But, as someone once said, “The safest place for a battleship is at the dock. But that’s not what battleships are for”. Likewise, everything we do has risk. Our job in life, and at work, is to decrease that risk. We must acknowledge that the goal of no risk is only achievable if we are willing to take no action.